As the Pentagon’s $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program continues to unravel, it is useful to remind ourselves who told us all of this would happen, and who might now be making foolish prognostications.

Let’s review the newest bidding:

Last Sunday, Bob Cox at the Fort Worth Star Telegram told us that the Defense Contract Management Agency has described some of the ongoing delays and cost overruns as a result of a painfully long list of serious production problems. Find the details here.

On Monday, Lockheed proudly announced to Reuters that its short take-off and vertical landing test jet has finally arrived at the Navy test facility at Patuxent, Maryland to resume the F-35 flight test program, now a few months or a few years behind schedule—depending on what baseline you use. But later in the week, the word spread at Lockheed that things didn’t go as well as expected at Patuxent. (The specifics of this are sure to break in the news, given the close attention paid by the press.)

This weekend, the Pentagon’s “Acquisition Czar,” Ashton Carter, will convene a meeting to ponder how to rescue the program. The word is that he is contemplating a plan to accelerate the flight test program—which sounds good until you consider the program can’t even maintain the delayed flight test program it is on now. The plan, nonetheless, will provide cover for moving around contractor engineers and other actions to feign big savings in the program. Carter is also contemplating a downsizing of the F-35’s performance requirements, perhaps in a manner that will be hard for overseers, if any, in Congress to find and/or in a manner that may complicate the program for the Air Force and further dampen the already tepid enthusiasm for the aircraft in the Navy. As a result of all this, cost growth being predicted by a multi-service team of analysts in the Pentagon, known as the “JET,” would be mostly wished away. (We know about the Joint Estimating Team’s cost analysis thanks to reporting from Jason Sherman at Inside Defense.)

None of this would fix the program in any real sense, but it would pretend that the F-35 program is not going to breach some newly revised congressional reporting requirements for cost overruns (known widely as Nunn-McCurdy). Thus—it is hoped—the world would remain ignorant of the problems beneath.

Into this vortex of illusion, Acquisition Czar Carter will have to drag numerous bureaucratic participants, if they are willing. Prominent among them are newly appointed senior officials for cost estimating, program development, and testing. Unwilling to press for any meaningful reform of the F-35 program, Carter apparently seeks the complicity of others. It will be most interesting to observe how everybody behaves.

On a cheerier note of intellectual honesty, consider that we were told (years ago) that all of this would happen. Back in August 2000, Franklin C. (Chuck) Spinney wrote in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings that the handwriting was very clear on the wall. Chuck, whom I should disclose is a personal friend and colleague, got it precisely right. In truth, it was not difficult for him to predict the current mess; after all, it’s business as usual at the Pentagon. And now it looks like the Gates/Obama Pentagon is no different.

Chuck explains in his nine year old commentary in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings, “JSF: One More Card in the House.” Find it referenced at the Proceedings website; find a link to it here; and find it below:

Proceedings of the Naval Institute

August 2000

The JSF: One More Card In The House

by F. C. Spinney Jr.

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), central to the Department of Defense’s modernization agenda, looks more and more like a case of “Here we go again.” Why? Because:

* Without timely deliveries of 2,853 JSFs, beginning in 2007, the plan to modernize Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps tactical aviation (TacAir) forces won’t happen.

* Without the promises of acquisition reform-cost savings, shorter development times, increased production efficiencies, all without sacrificing capability-the economic assumptions gluing together the entire DoD modernization program unravel.

The TacAir house of cards is the inevitable product of short-sighted decisions made as the Cold War ended. In 1991 and 1992, the Air Force and Navy prematurely rushed the F-22 and F/A-18E/F, respectively, into engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) without determining how they would modernize the entire force over the long term. In both cases, the aim was the same: build political support networks quickly before the threat of a peace dividend became the skunk at the garden party—and hope that the future would take care of itself.

The Air Force succeeded in ramming the YF-22 into EMD largely by misrepresenting the YF-22 demonstrator as a general prototype, even though its most important technical and economic risks—stealth, full engine power, and integrated avionics—were not part of the YF-22 and were being developed separately along concurrent pathways. Premature EMD insertion reduced political risks, however; it hooked Congress by opening the flood gates for a torrent of subcontracts and dollars to hundreds of congressional districts. In the process, the Air Force precipitated its long-term aging crisis, because it had no plan to modernize its F-16s and A-10s, which made up 70% of its forces.

The Navy’s contribution to the house of cards was triggered when the A-12 self-destructed in January 1991. Planners panicked and rushed the F/A-18E/F into EMD, claiming it was a low-risk modification to the F/A-18C and did not need a prototype. The Navy did this before it had produced a long-term plan for modernizing its entire force.

Navy and Air Force planners papered over their modernization trap by concocting two virtual development out-year programs—the Air Force’s multirole fighter (MRF) and the Navy’s advanced strike aircraft. In 1993, the new civilian leadership merrily walked into the trap by determining the obvious (separate tactical aviation modernization programs by each service were not “affordable”), canceling the two non-existent programs and replacing them with the joint advanced strike technology (JAST) program that mutated
into the JSF.

The problem was that each service had very different requirements. The Air Force wanted 1,763 cheap bombing trucks to replace F-16s and A-10s; the Navy wanted 480 “first day-of-the-war” deep-strike stealth bombers to compete with the Air Force in strategic bombing; and the Marines, still haunted by the ghosts of Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher and Guadalcanal, wanted to replace aging Harriers and conventional F/A-18s with 609 short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) JSFs that will operate from big-deck amphibious assault ships if need be.

The promises of acquisition reform are not materializing, and the JSF is sinking into the familiar swamp of cost growth and schedule slippage that usually precede a performance shortfall. On 8 February 1999, for example, Defense Daily reported that Lockheed Martin’s X-35 was facing $200 million in cost growth; Boeing had fundamentally redesigned its X-32 contender only 18 months before it was scheduled to fly. In March 1999, the Congressional Budget Office reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee that JSF costs might be underestimated by as much a 50%; in March 2000, the General Accounting Office told Congress the development program should be lengthened to reduce technical/cost risks: “To allow the JSF to proceed as planned—without maturing critical technologies—would perpetuate conditions that have led to cost growth and schedule delays in many prior DoD weapons system acquisition programs.” The GAO claims DoD restructured the program so that the EMD decision will be made with even less information than originally planned, and the program has migrated toward the traditional practice of developing technologies and products concurrently.

It is important to remember that the X-32 and X-35 JSF demonstrators are even more limited as concept demonstrators than was the YF-22, so the risks created by concurrency could be even greater. The winner of the JSF “competition” will be determined by a fly-off demonstrating only low-speed handling, STOVL capability, and producibility with at least 70% parts commonality; the YF-22 supersonic cruise demonstrator demonstrated aerodynamics of high-speed, high-G maneuvering, and high alpha, low-speed maneuvering in mock dogfights.

A JSF spokeswoman acknowledged that the program office is preparing contractual language that would permit contractors to spend their own money on JSF-even though such a contract might be illegal under 31 U.S.C. 1342, which is a felony statute carrying a sanction of a $5,000 fine and two years in prison.

Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps tactical fighter forces are in a pickle—a problem exacerbated by F-16 and F/A-18C structural problems. Perhaps it is time for introspection. We created the TacAir house of cards with expedient decisions to rush the F-22 and F/A-18E/F into development, and we have wasted almost a decade chasing the engineering equivalent of a free lunch.

Mr. Spinney, a former Air Force officer, has worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense since 1977.